Two Good (and Overlooked) Ideas in Obama's Jobs Plan

September 09, 2011 | Grist |  Link to article

I agree with Paul Krugman and Joe Romm that Obama's speech was better than expected, both rhetorically and substantively. The American Jobs Act involves too much tax cutting and too little new spending for what it needs to do. All the talk of infrastructure focused on cars and planes, except for the bit on high-speed rail, when what we really need is just better options for non-drivers at all levels of travel. And would it really have been too much for the president to mention how helpful looser monetary policy might be in creating jobs? (F'ing Bernanke, grumble grumble.)

But there was plenty to like, too, especially the straightforward defense of the ethic of mutual care that lies at the heart of liberalism.

The speech will not, of itself, make any difference. Presidential rhetoric has far less effect on public opinion and congressional outcomes than most people think, as political scientists are always drearily reminding us, but if this is the beginning of a coordinated push by the president, congressional Democrats, and (one hopes!) the ground forces of liberalism to advance the bill, I suppose there's a chance something might pass. Crazier things have happened. If it does, though, the best ideas are likely to fall out.

Nonetheless! So as not to indulge too thoroughly in cynicism, I want to highlight two worthwhile Obama proposals that might be overlooked in all the reaction to the speech.

The first is to "repair and modernize at least 35,000 schools." The White House proposes $25 billion for K-12 schools ($10 billion to the 100 largest high-need districts; $15 billion to states to direct as they choose) and another $5 billion for community colleges. The funds could be used for "a range of emergency repair and renovation projects, greening and energy efficiency upgrades, asbestos abatement and removal, and modernization efforts to build new science and computer labs and to upgrade technology in our schools."

The plan is based on the FAST! (Fix America's Schools Today) proposal outlined by Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund, Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute. Their version, at least, is mostly about greening schools -- improving ventilation and indoor air quality, replacing windows, installing energy-efficient boilers or solar panels, etc. The president's version seems a bit more broad.

I've always thought green schools are an incredibly potent and underappreciated tool, killer on both political and substantive grounds. (For more on this, check out my interview with green schools pioneer Rachel Gutter.) FAST! would put to work all sorts of construction and maintenance trades that are suffering from particularly high unemployment. And there's no end to the jobs potential: "Construction and building repair generally create 9,000-10,000 jobs per billion dollars spent." By that measure, Obama's $30 billion would create between 270,000 and 300,000 jobs. And that would only scratch the surface of the backlog of needed improvements.

A push to green schools would also have other, very tangible benefits:

It would also improve teacher and student morale, boost student achievement, and improve the health and safety of school communities. There is consistent evidence that providing a quality physical environment for teaching and learning improves student performance. Quality teachers are attracted to and remain longer in better facilities, attendance for students and teachers is improved, and students are healthier and can concentrate and learn better. Investing in school maintenance and repair can support efforts to dramatically improve the results of our nation's public education system.

Jobs benefits, educational benefits, health benefits, green benefits -- what's not to like?

The other good idea is buried in the section of the American Jobs Act on helping the unemployed. Obama will "expand 'work-sharing' to encourage arrangements using [unemployment insurance] that keep employees on the job at reduced hours, rather than laying them off." This is another excellent and perpetually overlooked idea, inspired by the German practice of Kurzarbeit, or "short-work."

Dean Baker over at the Center for Economic and Policy Research has been beating this drum for a while. See also this report [PDF] from Neil Ridley at the Center for Law and Social Policy and this nice summary from Dan Froomkin.

The idea is that allowing people to cut back on hours or share jobs rather than get laid off helps avoid the devastating economic and psychological impacts of unemployment. It particularly helps young and low-level workers, who are the first to go. It also allows workers to retain their skills. Says Baker:

If a work share program reduced involuntary job loss by 20 percent, or 400,000 per month, it would have the same effect as adding 400,000 new jobs. Over a full year, this would generate nearly 5 million new jobs. This would be a quick and effective way to reduce unemployment.

Juliet Schor hones in on the ecological benefits:

Research shows that longer work hours are associated with more ecological degradation. Working less typically leads to reduced spending and also a shift to lower-impact forms of consumption: taking the bike instead of the car; cooking at home instead of buying fast food. For the ecologically aware, the preference for SWT [shorter work time] over standard job creation measures such as stimulus spending or tax cuts should be clear.

And last but not least, Schor notes that American overwork is bad for mental health:

Reducing work hours improves work-life balance for many overworked, overstressed employees. Americans frequently report that what they most sense to be missing from their lives is the time necessary to enjoy them; research on well-being also indicates that adequate time is at the core of a healthy, happy life. Overworked employees report more family tension, less happiness, and more stress. This is a particular problem for Americans, who work between 100 and 350 more hours each year than workers in comparably wealthy countries.

Surveys done before the crash indicate that between 30 and 50 percent of Americans say they would prefer to work fewer hours, even for less pay.

In other words: work-sharing is a huge step toward the medium chill.

Like I said, I doubt these ideas will go anywhere, given, well, Congress. But they are good ideas nonetheless, and deserve discussion and consideration.

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